Music & Nightlife

Who is Sebastian Maniscalco? Tonight, an MTV star. Soon, a headliner in Charlotte.

Sebastian Maniscalco will host MTV’s 2019 Video Music Awards on Monday night, exactly one month before he’ll be in Charlotte.
Sebastian Maniscalco will host MTV’s 2019 Video Music Awards on Monday night, exactly one month before he’ll be in Charlotte. TODD ROSENBERG PHOTOGRAPHY

It’s still possible that you’ve been able to get to this point in your life without having heard the name Sebastian Maniscalco.

Possible. But it’s getting less and less likely all the time.

In 2016, he appeared as a guest on Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” series, and returned for a new episode on vintage Italian scooters last month. He had a small role in last year’s “Green Book,” which wound up winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and has a larger role in director Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” which is due on Sept. 27 and could be in the hunt for the same award this winter.

In December, he cracked Forbes’ list of the highest-paid comedians on Earth, landing at No. 10 with $15 million in 2018 gross earnings; in January, Maniscalco set a record for most tickets sold in a weekend for any comedy engagement in the history of New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

And next month, Charlotte will get a chance to see what all the fuss is about when the 46-year-old Chicago native comes to town for two shows on back-to-back nights at Ovens Auditorium, as part of his 2019 “You Bother Me Tour” (though the engagements are nearly sold out, so hurry).

Or you could also tune in to MTV Monday night, when Maniscalco will be in the spotlight as host the 2019 Video Music Awards — despite the fact that he’s by his own admission going to be a fair bit outside of his comfort zone around people like Taylor Swift and Shawn Mendes.

“Yeah, I mean, I did a little bit of that,” he said, when asked whether he had to do research to get ready for the job. “I got myself kind of familiar with some of the artists. I just found out who Normani was, and H.E.R., and Halsey, and all these artists that I would, you know, typically not really listen to.

“I’m not a huge music guy. ... I’m not kind of privy on who sings what, who’s in a feud with who. But yeah, I did a little research on the artists and the presenters ... so yeah, I’m ready to go.”

Here’s more from Maniscalco’s recent interview with the Observer, including his reflections on being a new father, in what ways his life is still influenced by his past work as a restaurant server, and how he feels about the notion that he talks like he stepped out of a gangster movie. (Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.)

Q. So how are you feeling about the VMAs? Are you getting nervous? Excited? Both?

Yeah, I’m nervous, I’m excited, I’m anxious — all the above. I’ve never done something like this before. It’s a little bit out of my wheelhouse. It’s teleprompters, it’s live, it’s cameras, it’s people standing in mosh pits — I would be worried if I wasn’t nervous. When it’s all said and done, it’s gonna be interesting to see how I did. ... But I think in life, you’ve got to kind of challenge yourself and step out of what you normally do — not only for breaking up the monotony, but seeing what you’re capable of. So when they called, I was like, Man, MTV. I mean, I’m 46 years old. What’s the average audience age, 21? Are they going to relate to my humor? But after thinking about it for a bit, I’m like, You know what? This is a pop-culture moment, and it’s just part of history. I would love to be a part of it.

Q. Just wait about 10 years, when your kids — I mean, they probably won’t be listening to Ariana Grande then, or Taylor Swift, but it’ll be whoever the big pop star is 10 years from now. You won’t be able to escape pop music then, because of your kids, I assume. (His daughter Serafina was born in May 2017, and his son Caruso was born this past June.)

Oh yeah, I’m sure. Once they start listening to music, I’m gonna be definitely well-versed in all of the younger artists. But until then, I have to do it on my own.

Q. How’s fatherhood treating you, by the way?

It’s great. My daughter is now just finding words and putting sentences together, and really becoming active. For the first 2-1/2 years, Daddy wasn’t really the topic of conversation. It was always, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.” But now she’s finally coming around to Daddy, and I’m having a ball with it. Fatherhood is very rewarding. ... They’re really good sleepers. They both sleep like a bear, so fortunately my wife and I have been getting some really good sleep. You keep hearing these nightmare stories where the kid’s getting up at 2 o’clock in the morning, and they’ve got to put him in a car and drive him around the block so he goes to sleep. There’s been none of that with us.

Q. And this opens up a whole new world in terms of material for your act, doesn’t it?

Yeah, I’m being put in situations now that I haven’t been put in in the past, obviously, going to toddler groups, or a birthday party, or gymnastics — whatever activity the kid is a part of, it puts me in a situation where I’m dealing with maybe parents that I’m forced to deal with just because my kid’s in the same class. So, a lot of comedy is coming out of parenthood, and I think it’s nice to do something different since my comedy kind of parallels my life. It’s not like I go into a dark room and try and figure out what funny stuff is. It’s coming out of true life experiences. For me, it’s better to do that type of comedy than, like, punchline-type jokes.

Q. When you go to those toddler groups, or kids’ birthday parties, are you able to blend in, or do people recognize you now?

I mean, I don’t know who recognizes me or not. It’s one of these things where I have a really large fan base, but they’re very specific. That’s part of the reason I’m doing the VMAs — to reach a broader audience. So I don’t know if anybody knows what I do. I don’t mention anything. I’m just there, and they’re there, and that’s it. ... I don’t have a line of people waiting to take a photo with me. Not at all.

Q. You mentioned gymnastics, too. Is your daughter taking gymnastics?

Yeah, she’s in gymnastics, she’s swimming — she’s really active. It’s funny, my wife grew up kind of, like, (in a) no-fear (family). They did everything from skiing to swimming. Anything that you could basically get killed at doing, they were doing. And I come from a very worried family, where I didn’t really get to do a lot of things ’cause my mother was always, “Oh my God, you can’t do that! You’re gonna fall, or break a leg!” But it’s nice that my wife and I are kind of on the opposite ends of the spectrum on this. I mean, my daughter’s swimming at 2-1/2 years old. I still don’t know how to swim.

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Sebastian Maniscalco will perform two shows in Charlotte, on Sept. 25 and 26.

Q. So, talk about the new tour for a minute. What can fans expect?

As life progresses, my comedy kind of follows along those lines. And this is jokes that — you know, there’s a little chunk in there about my wife and I going out to dinner, and how my wife doesn’t know how a restaurant works. So there’s observational material, as well as some family material. I talk about my father a lot. My father’s a big focal point of my act, and he’s always very relevant when I’m doing a tour.

Q. You mentioned your wife not really understanding how restaurants work. Do you find yourself being really hyper-critical of the service at restaurants because of your background?

Yeah, I grew up in the hospitality business. I was a waiter since I’ve been 15 years old, so I’ve worked at a variety of different hotels — some kind of middle end, some very, very high end — and I’m really privy to how things should work at a hotel or a restaurant, just because I was always on the other side of the table. I was always anticipating guests’ needs. I worked at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, which at the time was one of the most popular hotels not only in the city, but in the country. They prided themselves — of course, the Four Seasons always does — on the service they give their guests. So yeah, I’m very tuned into when we go out, or when we check into a hotel, to the little nuances that some people might not see.

Q. What’s your biggest pet peeve about restaurant servers?

Number one pet peeve is when I go to a restaurant — we were instructed to greet the guest within two minutes of them sitting down, so it’s when you don’t see a waiter for awhile. You ever go to a restaurant, you sit there, and you’re like, “Hey, is anybody working here?” We made it a point at the Four Seasons to run up and at least greet the person. And if we were busy, say, “Listen, I’ll be right back. I just wanted to say hello. My name’s Sebastian.” But yeah, that’s my pet peeve: not seeing a waiter for 10 to 15 minutes after you sat down.”

Q. Going back to your act — when people talk about your style, they talk about the physicality of your performances and the facial expressions, and they also often bring up the fact that your comedy is generally pretty clean. One thing that doesn’t come up as much is your Italian accent, although I bring it up because I read a profile in Forbes about you from a couple years ago in which the writer wrote: “(It’s) as if he came out of an 80s Gangster movie and not a Chicago suburb.” Does that statement resonate with you at all?

Yeah, I never looked at it as any type of gangster type of deal. I mean, I grew up in an Italian family. I happen to have an accent because I grew up in the Chicagoland area. When I get up on stage, it’s just an exaggerated reality of who I really am. I mean, I don’t go walking around, going, (affects a sharp Italian accent) “Can youuu belieeeve that?” I mean, it’s just part of the act. It’s comedic. It’s almost like you’re playing a little character up there, just for the sake of being humorous. But I don’t liken it to any type of mob or gangster type of attitude. It’s just more of a — you know, the physicality of it all, the facial expressions, the movement, it’s like a heightened reality up there.

Q. I know that Andrew Dice Clay was an influence to you. Is any of that inspired by him, and watching him?

No, actually, my uncle used to talk in this type of manner. He was hysterical, and I always really mimicked him growing up.

Q. Well, I get that it’s not a gangster thing on stage, but on film, you’re gonna be in a gangster movie this fall — the Martin Scorsese movie. For a guy who grew up in a traditional Italian-American family, is that kind of like a dream come true to be able to have worked with him, and guys like Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci?

Yeah, I grew up watching these guys. So when I got the opportunity to just even audition for this film, I was ecstatic. And now I got the role, and I’m working with De Niro and Pesci. It’s nuts. This is something that I would never have thought would happen to me. To be in the movie “Green Book,” which won the Oscar earlier this year, and then subsequently be in this movie — for a comedian who doesn’t do this night in and night out — is really special. I mean, there’s a lot of actors who work their whole life to get to a point where they’re working with this caliber of talent. I’m just fortunate that the success in comedy has opened other opportunities up for me.

Q. After everything that you’ve accomplished, do you still have career goals at this point?

I never had them to begin with. I mean, the only career goal I ever had was to do stand-up comedy for a living. I didn’t set out to be in movies, write a book, start a podcast, or any of this stuff. Or host the VMAs. This was never in the cards for me. I set out in 1998, moving from Chicago to Los Angeles, to pursue a career in stand-up comedy. That was all I ever wanted. But as that grew and became what it became, like I said, all these other opportunities started presenting themselves. So, you know, I’m not sitting here going, Man, I want to start my own production company. The stuff kind of just presents itself, and at the time, if I want to do it, I do it, if I don’t, I’ll pass on it. I’m not looking at 2020 on my vision board and going, Oh, I want to do this, that and the other thing. I’m not really goal-oriented. I just put all my energy into stand-up comedy, and whatever happens from that happens.

Sebastian Maniscalco: ‘You Bother Me’

The comedian will do two standup shows in Charlotte on back-to-back nights, as part of the Queen City Comedy Experience.

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 25, and Thursday, Sept. 26.

Where: Ovens Auditorium, 2700 E. Independence Blvd.

Tickets: $41 and up (only single tickets remain for the Sept. 26 performance).

Details: 800-745-3000; www.ovensauditorium.com.

Théoden Janes has spent 12 years covering entertainment and pop culture for the Observer. He also thrives on telling emotive long-form stories about extraordinary Charlotteans and — as a veteran of 20-plus marathons and two Ironman triathlons — occasionally writes about endurance and other sports.
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